Paul’s Food Center, a 40-year-old downtown Portland institution, will close next month, leaving longtime regulars without their neighborhood grocery store.

The family of Paul Trusiani, the founder and operator of Paul’s who died in September, decided to close the store and has sold the building, which it has owned since 1975. The building at 585-593 Congress St. was purchased for $3.1 million by a partnership that includes the owners of the Portland Flea-for-All, a high-end flea market in nearby West Bayside.

The new owners do not yet have firm plans for the space occupied by Paul’s, said Erin Kiley, who owns the Flea-for-All with her husband. She said the sale will not affect the other tenants in the building: Yes Books store, Vinland restaurant and the residents of 14 apartments.

The founder’s son, Jim Trusiani, who has been running the store since his father’s death, said he would have liked to see it stay open, as would the 11 employees who will lose their jobs and the many regular customers who rely on having a grocery store with good prices in walking distance.

“Sixteen years I’ve been able to come downstairs in my pajamas to get what I need,” said Jim Thibodeau, 66, who lives next door at Congress Square Plaza, an apartment building with many elderly and disabled tenants who frequently use the store.

Thibodeau was buying chicken, potato chips and canned vegetables Friday with his chihuahua, Princess, zipped under his coat. He said he stops into the store every day and does the grocery shopping there for three of his neighbors who are disabled. Although he goes to Hannaford once a month, he doesn’t have great options for picking up grocery items in between. Like many of his neighbors, he gets government assistance to buy his food.

“CVS takes food stamps, but they don’t have bread,” he said.

Paul’s is a full-service grocery store with a freezer and meat case, fresh produce, canned goods, household cleaning products and everything in between. Easter candy was on display Friday next to a rack of greeting cards. Some customers came in for just an item or two – cigarettes or a can of beer – while others left carrying several plastic bags filled with staples such as bread and cheese.

Judy Krantz, 71, who lives on State Street, said she comes in a few times a week for the prepared meals, which Friday included Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes, chicken Alfredo and lasagna.

“I haven’t gone to Hannaford or Shaw’s in a long time because I’ve had the convenience of this,” said Krantz, who doesn’t have a car. “I guess I’m going to have to if I want to eat.”

Mayor Ethan Strimling said he’s been talking to other businesses in the area to see if someone will fill the void that Paul’s closure will create.

“It’s going to leave a real gap in the cityscape, (a grocery store) that people can walk to and that has such a neighborhood feel,” he said. “We’re losing a little bit of our heart, a little bit of our soul.”

Not knowing what is moving into the space, Strimling said, it was hard to say whether the closure is evidence of the gentrification of Portland – a phenomenon that’s been blamed for jacking up rent prices and shuttering other longtime local businesses.

The owners of the Flea-for-All, which sells vintage, antique and artisan wares at its Kennebec Street location, said their plans for the space are uncertain as is the future of their current location.

Kiley said they purchased the Paul’s unit under a separate limited liability company in order to qualify for a small business loan. Their partner in the purchase is Barrett Made construction.

Aside from renovations to four vacant apartments in the building, no other spaces will be affected by the sale, Kiley said. That includes the restaurant and bookstore.

“We love all of our tenants, and we have no plans to change anything,” she said.

Kiley also lamented the loss of Paul’s, but said it was the family’s choice to close the business.

Jim Trusiani, who expects to close the store within three weeks, said, for now, he’s trying to focus on honoring his father’s legacy.

Paul Trusiani was running the store himself until a week before he died of complications from heart surgery. He was 81.

“He really struck a great balance between making a living and making a difference,” his son said.

Often, he had customers with food stamps who wouldn’t have enough left by the end of the month to buy food.

When that happened, Trusiani said, his father used to loan them $5 or $10, making a note of it on a pad he kept in his shirt pocket.

“God knows how many dollars were on that notepad when he passed away,” Trusiani said.

Paul Trusiani spent nearly his entire working life in the grocery business, starting as a child in Brunswick behind a soda fountain at a local drugstore.

After high school, he worked as an apprentice meat cutter for First National Stores before enlisting in the Army in 1953 and serving for two years. After being discharged, he earned a degree from Portland University, now the University of Southern Maine, and worked for Hannaford Brothers Co. as a buyer, retail counselor and head of procurement. He was vice president and general manager of Martin’s Foods before opening his own store in 1975.

He also went on to earn an MBA.

Trusiani opened a second Paul’s Food Center in 1980 on the east end of Congress Street in what was Levinsky’s Plaza and is now a Rite Aid.

When the store closed in 1994, there was similar concern for that neighborhood and the residents who relied on the store.

The ownership of the Congress Street building and the store were split between Paul Trusiani and his ex-wife, Annamarie Trusiani. Paul Trusiani’s children inherited his halves of the building and business, Jim Trusiani said.

The property encompassing 585-593 Congress St. is assessed at $1.3 million, according to city records.

 


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